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Evolution of the SPM requirement

Photo Courtesy of St. Olaf College Archives

Over the last decade, the physical activity general education (GE) requirement, currently known as Studies in Physical Movement (SPM), has evolved to become both more inclusive and more accessible to the student body.

From the start, St. Olaf has focused on and valued the inclusion of physical fitness in its curriculum. In January of 1897, one student wrote in the Manitou Messenger, “the descendants of the Vikings ought to take the lead in making bodily exercise compulsory. There ought to be a gymnasium at every Norwegian college.”
Physical education classes became a requirement in 1907 under the administration of President John Kildahl.

In 1923, the College offered activity courses similar to current courses offered in the exercise science department, but some of them were a little more unusual. At nearly 92 years of age, Rev. Arnold “Andy” Andersen ’23was interviewed by the Manitou Messenger in 1985 and recalled his experience on campus. In one required course, the men were required to take boxing, Andersen ’23 said.

“We had to learn how to box. You had to know how to defend yourself,” Andersen said in an interview with the Messenger in 1985.

Other required courses also sought to maintain St. Olaf’s Norwegian heritage. In the past, the College required students to take Norwegian classes if they were of Norwegian ancestry.

Over time, St. Olaf has built and rebuilt three gymnasiums, including the current Skoglund Athletic Center built in 1967. At its opening, Skoglund was only available for male students, as female students completed their gym courses in a separate gymnasium on campus.

In the 1990s, students had to fulfill the “Physical Activity” (PHA) GE, one of the predecessors of the SPM that carried a four-course requirement. Due to financial troubles at the time, St. Olaf faced budget cuts to faculty and programs, which resulted in the requirement being reduced to two courses and re-titled as Studies in Physical Movement in 1998 as part of larger GE reform.

The most recent draft of the new GE curriculum will reduce the requirement to a single course and change the name to the “Active Body” requirement, as the faculty continue to strive for a more equitable and accessible activity requirement.

The SPM requirement has been criticized in the past due to its lack of accessibility for students with differing mental and physical capabilities. The GE Task Force, which recently completed the OLE Core Curriculum that was approved by faculty at a recent meeting, initially chose not to include the SPM in the curriculum due to the ableist nature of the courses offered, said Task Force student representative Myrtó Neamonitaki ’20.
In a Messenger opinion article last fall, Kayla Carlson ’19 questioned the SPM’s lack of accessibility for students with disabilities.

“Students with disabilities have to jump through enough hoops regarding accessibility in everyday life — should a GE requirement at an educational institution be another one of those obstacles?” Carlson wrote.

The Task Force is looking to make the activity requirement more cross-disciplinary, with classes in departments such as theater, biology and music able to fulfill the requirement, as well as study abroad programs, said department chair of exercise science Cindy Book.
Moving forward, the exercise science department will offer an inclusive fitness course spring 2020 that is accessible for students with physical disabilities. Held in the Pause, the class will allow students to move and be involved as much as they can, Book said.

bermel1@stolaf.edu